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There’s nothing sweet about the relationship between heart disease and cancer

Hands holding a heart

When the calendar changes to February, red and pink heart-shaped candy fills store shelves in preparation for Valentine’s Day. Let those hearts also serve as a reminder of another February event: American Heart Month.

Health conditions, lifestyle choices and family history can all increase your risk of heart disease. But did you know that cancer and heart disease have been linked?

There’s nothing sweet about their relationship — studies have shown heart disease may increase your risk of developing cancer, and cancer treatments may increase your risk of heart disease.

A 2019 National Health Institute-funded study found heart attack survivors were more likely to develop cancer than those without cardiovascular disease. Even just being high-risk for cardiovascular disease puts individuals at a higher risk of developing cancer. Cancer and cardiovascular disease share many of the same risk factors, such as tobacco use and poor nutrition, but researchers are still working to identify if there is a biological link between the two.

Conversely, a study published in the European Heart Journal found more than one in 10 cancer patients die not from their cancer but from heart problems. Cancer patients dying from cardiovascular disease was highest in those who had bladder (19% of patients), larynx (17%), prostate (17%), womb (16%), bowel (14%) or breast (12%) cancers.

“We now know that there are strong links between cancer and cardiovascular disease, or CVD, as cancer patients have two to six times higher risk of death due to CVD than the general population,” said Carl J. Pepine, M.D., a professor of medicine in the UF College of Medicine’s division of cardiovascular medicine and a UF Health Cancer Center member. “This is particularly true for breast, uterine, thyroid and prostate cancers.”

The study also found cancer patients are at higher risk of dying from heart disease and stroke than the general population. This could be due to other illnesses and problems being detected when they entered the hospital or because of aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy, that often comes after a cancer diagnosis.

“The reasons are not always clear; some of it relates to shared risk factors between CVD and cancer, like older age, smoking, obesity and chronic inflammation, but some of it relates to cancer therapy,” Pepine said. “I hope that this will increase awareness and lead to a more proactive dialog between patients and their providers about choices for therapy.”

According to Cancer.Net, heart conditions that can develop after cancer treatment are:

  • Cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Damage to heart valves
  • Myocarditis
  • Problems with the pericardium

The American Cancer Society recommends protecting your heart health during and after treatment by:

  • Creating a survivorship care plan
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting recommended cancer screenings
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting to and staying at a healthy weight
  • Keeping your follow-up appointments
  • Taking care of your emotional health

About the author

Kacey Finch
UF Health Cancer Center Communications Specialist

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620